Ro­bots are be­ing used to study the un­der­wa­ter world with­out caus­ing too much of a dis­tur­bance

Popular Mechanics (South Africa) - - Contents - BY T I ANA CLI NE


to ac­knowl­edge it or not, the ro­bot apoc­a­lypse is un­der­way. Ro­bot vac­uum clean­ers are zoom­ing around our houses, suck­ing the dirt from our car­pets with fi­nesse (and some­times tak­ing do­mes­tic cats along for the ride). They’re out in our gar­dens, mow­ing our lawns down to the pre­cise mil­lime­tre. They’re teach­ing our kids how to code.

That said, ro­bots for the home are only a small peek into how this kind of tech­nol­ogy is chang­ing the world around us. We are cur­rently over­whelmed by eco­log­i­cal is­sues around cli­mate change, plas­tic pol­lu­tion and how over­fish­ing is wreak­ing havoc on ocean life. We’ve seen ma­jor re­tail­ers such as Wool­worths and Pick n Pay tak­ing big steps to elim­i­nate their plas­tic pack­ag­ing.

But the im­ages on so­cial me­dia, which show an­i­mals en­tan­gled in plas­tic, dead sea birds in bulk, divers swim­ming in a swathe of junk, and beached whales with bel­ly­fuls of our rub­bish are only one part of the story. Re­searchers are now talk­ing about mi­croplas­tic pol­lu­tion: As they’re al­most in­vis­i­bly small, these ma­te­ri­als get ingested by the small­est sea crea­tures and may travel all the way up the food chain to hu­mans. We are not yet sure about the long-term con­se­quences, but the chem­i­cals that are ab­sorbed from the layer of ma­rine lit­ter can be dan­ger­ous to hu­man and ma­rine health..


In March of 2018, the Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy (MIT) un­veiled Sofi – a ver­sa­tile undersea ro­bot that looks and swims like a fish. Sofi, which is short for Soft Ro­botic Fish, will swim among other fish, giv­ing sci­en­tists a new way to ob­serve sea crea­tures with­out dis­turb­ing them. And un­like most re­mote-con­trolled ma­chines, for ex­am­ple, Sofi won’t star­tle the crea­tures around it – in her trial swim around Fiji, she had fish swim­ming right along­side her.

Daniela Rus, a re­searcher from MIT’S CSAIL (Com­puter Sci­ence and Ar­ti­fi­cial In­tel­li­gence Lab­o­ra­tory), ex­claimed that: ‘[Sofi] is el­e­gant and beau­ti­ful to watch in mo­tion. We were ex­cited to see that our fish could swim side by side with real fish, and they didn’t swim away. This is quite dif­fer­ent to when a hu­man diver ap­proaches.’

Sofi is 45 cm long and can swim at 23 cm a sec­ond up to 18 me­tres be­low the sur­face for 45 min­utes, un­til its bat­tery runs out. Re­searchers at MIT be­lieve that the ro­bot will be able to pro­vide use­ful in­for­ma­tion about ecosys­tems af­fected by cli­mate change and pol­lu­tion by col­lect­ing data on ocean be­hav­iour.

While Sofi is not the first au­ton­o­mous un­der­wa­ter ro­bot by any means, be­cause the ro­bot is not teth­ered to a boat, or re­quires power from bulky and ex­pen­sive pro­pel­lers, it has a big ad­van­tage un­der the sea. Sofi has a cam­era sys­tem – with a fish­eye lens, as luck would have it – that com­mu­ni­cates us­ing ul­tra­sound, which, un­like ra­dio sig­nals, prop­a­gate rel­a­tively well un­der­wa­ter.

Im­prov­ing on pre­vi­ous au­ton­o­mous un­der­wa­ter ve­hi­cles, Sofi is much lighter and sim­pler. It houses a sin­gle cam­era and an elec­tric mo­tor, and runs on a lithi­u­mion poly­mer bat­tery es­sen­tially the same as you the one in your phone. Move­ment comes from a hy­draulic pump sys­tem – the mo­tor al­ter­nates be­tween pump­ing wa­ter into two reser­voirs in Sofi’s tail. As one reser­voir ex­pands, it bends and flexes to one side. When the wa­ter is then pushed into the other reser­voir, the tail flexes in the other di­rec­tion.

These al­ter­nat­ing ac­tions cre­ate a sideto-side mo­tion that mim­ics the move­ment of a real fish. This biomimicry makes it a clever way to help bi­ol­o­gists mon­i­tor the health of ma­rine habi­tats with­out the risk of caus­ing their fishy friends lots of dis­tress.

Sofi has the po­ten­tial to be a wholly new type of tool for ocean ex­plo­ration and to open up in­no­va­tive new av­enues for un­cov­er­ing the mys­ter­ies of life un­der the waves. ‘ We view Sofi as a first step to­ward de­vel­op­ing al­most an un­der­wa­ter ob­ser­va­tory of sorts,’ con­cludes Rus.

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